The Sounds of Poetry A Brief Guide

  • ISBN13:


  • ISBN10:


  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-09-01
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Note: Supplemental materials are not guaranteed with Rental or Used book purchases.

Purchase Benefits

  • Free Shipping On Orders Over $35!
    Your order must be $35 or more to qualify for free economy shipping. Bulk sales, PO's, Marketplace items, eBooks and apparel do not qualify for this offer.
  • Get Rewarded for Ordering Your Textbooks! Enroll Now
  • We Buy This Book Back!
    In-Store Credit: $0.53
    Check/Direct Deposit: $0.50
List Price: $14.00 Save up to $6.81
  • Rent Book $8.40
    Add to Cart Free Shipping


Supplemental Materials

What is included with this book?

  • The Used and Rental copies of this book are not guaranteed to include any supplemental materials. Typically, only the book itself is included. This is true even if the title states it includes any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.


The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a bodily, art," Robert Pinsky declares inThe Sounds of Poetry. "The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing." As Poet Laureate, Pinsky is one of America's best spokesmen for poetry. In this fascinating book, he explains how poets use the "technology" of poetry--its sounds--to create works of art that are "performed" in us when we read them aloud. He devotes brief, informative chapters to accent and duration, syntax and line, like and unlike sounds, blank and free verse. He cites examples from the work of fifty different poets--from Shakespeare, Donne, and Herbert to W. C. Williams, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, C. K. Williams, Louise Gluuml;ck, and Frank Bidart. This ideal introductory volume belongs in the library of every poet and student of poetry.

Author Biography

Robert Pinsky is Poet Laureate of the United States and teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 3
Theoryp. 7
Accent and Durationp. 11
Syntax and Linep. 25
Technical Terms and Vocal Realitiesp. 51
Like and Unlike Soundsp. 79
Blank Verse and Free Versep. 97
Recommendations for Further Studyp. 117
Notesp. 119
Index of Names and Termsp. 123
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One


What determines the stress or accent in English words and sentences? What precisely does it mean to say, for example, that we stress the first syllable in the word "rabbit" and the second syllable in the word "omit"? What exactly does the voice do to create that audible, distinct accent? (A term that for now I will use interchangeably with "stress.")

This is a more interesting question than might appear at first. Just considering the question can, in itself, help one to hear more about the sounds of the words we speak.

For instance, the answer that stress is produced by increased loudness or volume is not completely satisfactory, as a little experimentation will suggest. Consider what a speaker does to distinguish between, say, the first word and the last word of the following sentence:

Permit me to give you a permit.

Turning the volume down or up has some relation to what our voice does, but fails to explain the delicate but quite distinct difference that virtually all speakers can indicate and virtually all listeners can detect.

I'll focus more minutely for a moment. Here is an English sound:


In the nature of the English language, the sound, which happens also to be a one-syllable word, is neither stressed nor unstressed, by itself. It is neither short nor long, by itself.

The sound is conventionally stressed, relative to the syllables near it, when one says "bitter" or "reiterate" or "she had wit." It is conventionally unstressed when one says "italicize" or "rabbit" or " Pat had it."

These examples demonstrate a useful principle: the stress on a syllable in English is not inherent in the sound, but relative. A syllable is stressed or unstressed only in relation to the syllables around it. As a corollary, accent is a matter of degree. This knowledge is useful because if accent or stress is a matter of degree, we can hear interesting rhythms even in a line where the basic structure is the simple pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. For example:

It is not growing like a tree

In bulk, doth make man better be.

Each of these two lines is made of four pairs of syllables. Each pair of syllables is arranged so that the second one has more accent than the first: "is" sticks out just a bit more than "It" in the very light first pair; and "grow" sticks out more than "not" in the rather heavy second pair; and "like" sticks out quite a lot more than "-ing"; and "tree" definitely sticks out more than "a." In the final pair of the line ("a tree"), the difference between the unstressed first syllable and the stressed second syllable is greater than in the earlier pairs. We could analyze the second line similarly, noting that the considerable pause early in the line also varies the rhythm.

What is interesting is that within the simple system of four pairs, each pair ascending in accent from first syllable to second, the actual rhythm of the words is not singsong or repetitious, because so much varies. Unless you make the mistake of pronouncing the words in some special, chanting or "poetic" manner, you can hear both the pattern and the constant variation. The degree of accent varies and the degree of difference between the unstressed and stressed syllable also varies, from one pair to the next.


Copyright 1998 Robert Pinsky. All rights reserved.

Rewards Program

Write a Review